Inside the Hidden Treasure Trove of Small Businesses in Eisenhower West

(Updated at 3:55 p.m.) In the shadow of the Covanta trash incinerator, just north of the Metro tracks, a small garden of unique, local businesses is blooming.

The West End Business Center (5308 Eisenhower Avenue) and Van Dorn Metro Business Center (5416 Eisenhower Avenue) look like average industrial uses, but several of the businesses inside this suite offer unique services that are relatively hidden from those who don’t already frequent the Eisenhower West area.

Perhaps the most well known of the businesses here is Sportrock, an indoor rock climbing facility boasting the tallest indoor rock climbing surface in the Mid-Atlantic, at 60 feet. Lillian Chao-Quinlan, who opened Sportrock’s Eisenhower Avenue location in 1996, said the area was mainly auto shops when she opened, but those have slowly given way to new, unique local businesses.

Among them are The Garden, a co-building space run by a technology training company called Building Momentum, and Scramble, an indoor play facility that focuses on affordable play options.

Allen Brooks, COO of The Garden and Building Momentum, said the success of Sportrock made the city more amenable to approving his special use permit, which allows him to operate a facility where co-workers can utilize 3D printing and other crafting tools.

“We were able to get blanket SUP partially because of [Sportrock],” Brooks said. “It’s a vision of what the west end of Eisenhower could be.”

The business owners on the west end of Eisenhower Avenue are enthusiastic about the future of their community and say it’s ripe for further growth. Brooks said there are about 50 workers who set up in The Garden, but in April that will expand as the Department of the Navy will start bringing employees in for a program called Navy X.

Between The Garden’s co-building clients, parents with their children at Scramble, and people climbing or working out at Sportrock, the business owners said there are people coming to the area for activities — but it lacks the other types of food and retail spots in the immediate vicinity that could make for a more well-rounded community.

“We have a preponderance of people for coffee and [other purposes] but people don’t know we’re here,” Brooks said.

As the city prepares to rewrite the plans for Eisenhower, focusing on turning the corridor into a residential and retail hub, Scramble owner Laurence Smallman said the city should look at the example of what the existing small businesses were able to do with former industrial spaces when given the space by the city to do so.

“[When they’re] looking into the redo of the small area plan, they should look at the example of the blanket SUP,” Smallman said.

Scramble is an example of a business that doesn’t fall neatly into any one single category and thus is more challenging to fit into existing regulations.

Scramble offers a large indoor playspace that focuses on creating an environment where children are able to grow through both cognitive and physical play. A large jungle gym, for instance, has activities like an Egyptian tomb with secret passageways. The location also has a small bookstore aimed at age-appropriate and educational books. The ages at Scramble range from infants to toddlers to elementary school children.

The local business owners said they hope the city’s new plan includes easing some of the restrictions on businesses. Smallman said the city should adjust its zoning to let people use space in the area for more innovative purposes.

“If the city wants to help foster innovative businesses, it needs to look at zoning,” said Smallman.

Smallman and Chao-Quinlan said Mayor Justin Wilson has been helpful in the past, helping guide applications through the sometimes laborious permit process and in pushing back from the dais against city-imposed restrictions like limited hours of operation.

“I think the city is working towards that,” Brooks said. “Despite being a small city, there’s a big bureaucracy. But they are trying to innovate and change as best they can.”

The main hurdles for the small community of Eisenhower West businesses have been visibility, a lack of parking, and the Covanta plant across the street deterring new businesses.

“You can easily pass all these buildings and not know what’s here,” said Chao-Quinlan.

Chhaya Muth and Daniel Beason, president and vice-president of the Eisenhower Partnership respectively, said part of their mission is bringing attention to the local businesses by hosting events in the area and providing advocacy, like pushing for DASH’s Alexandria Transit Vision plan, which could improve the frequency of bus service to the businesses.

In the meantime, the business owners said they continue to work together to explore new options for how to help the small community bloom.

“It’s very grassroots,” Chao-Quinlan said. “Very pioneer-ish.”